The Decadent Society and On Decline

By Ross Douthat

By Andrew Potter

It’s ironic that the age of postmodernism – broadly, the back half of the twentieth century – among whose foundational beliefs is the invalidity of historical meta-narratives, has itself been characterized by many historians as representing one of the clearest, and certainly most recent, examples we have of such a meta-narrative in operation.

What I’m referring to is the myth of a decline from a golden age. The golden age in this context refers to what Eric Hobsbawm, in his magisterial history of the twentieth century Age of Extremes, more specifically called the golden age of capitalism, and which ran from roughly the early 1950s to the early 1970s. During this period Western economies boomed, there was rapid technological progress, internal improvements were the order of the day, and societies became more egalitarian.

The 1970s saw a swing away from all this, a turn often seen as triggered by the oil shock and identified as a hard turn to the political right and the neoliberal agenda of leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Wages stagnated. Economic inequality grew. Environmental issues like pollution, extinction, and global climate change went from being persistent and intractable to lost causes. Even life expectancies began to decline for the first time since we started recording them.

Scientists began talking about “peak science,” that from now on we were going to spend more and more time, money, and effort to learn less and less, while in the cultural field commentators began to take note of the triumph of nostalgia. “As it evolves into the dominant mood of the twenty-first century,” Andrew Potter writes, “nostalgia culture has just become the culture, one where consumer crazes and social media shivers amount to little more than the context-free curation of the past.”

I’ve written a lot about this point myself in regard to Canada’s fetishizing of a golden age of CanLit, but it’s a phenomenon that’s widely attested elsewhere. Kurt Andersen, perhaps the first person to sound the alarm on the nostalgia cult, is fixated on the subject in his book Fantasyland. In Hatchet Job the film critic Mark Kermode makes the argument that movies peaked in terms of their popularity as far back as the 1930s and ‘40s and that “to all intents and purposes we are now merely sifting through the wreckage of an art form whose popular supremacy has long been superseded.” That’s true, and what’s more to the point, how many of our biggest movies today are remakes, reboots, and legacy intellectual properties going on fifty years-old that have now been turned into franchises? Quite a lot of them.

Music? As recently reported by Ted Gioia, old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, and it’s a trend that’s worsening: “The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago.” I was struck by this most recently when listening in to a neighbour’s house party and hearing nothing but songs from the 1980s. What, I wondered, has happened to today’s kids, to be so much in love with the music of their parents, or even grandparents? But maybe the kids were alright. Perhaps the question I should have been asking is what had happened to their music.

How can one live in such a social, political, and cultural moment and not start to think about stagnation and decline? Ross Douthat and Andrew Potter are two writers whose thoughts have turned in that direction, and in The Decadent Society and On Decline they present very similar takes on the problem. From their analysis only dismal conclusions can be drawn.
Though it’s much shorter (it’s part of the Biblioasis series of Field Notes), On Decline strikes me as having the firmest grip on what’s going on. Front and center is the historical myth of boom and bust, golden age and fall. For Potter, as for many observers of the period, the golden age wasn’t an example of the inevitability of progress so much as a historical blip brought about largely by a wealth of easily exploited energy resources. In the post-WW2 period we hadn’t advanced to some higher state of civilization but only won a lottery:

Our mistake was believing that the world had figured things out in a way that was more or less stable and permanent. It turns out that this period of stability and growth was temporary. Progress itself was something that fed off a massive one-time windfall we gained access to in the nineteenth century. We didn’t climb a ladder, we stumbled into a buffet. We’ve been feasting off that buffet for a few centuries now. Unfortunately, it looks like the party is coming to an end.

Having gorged ourselves at this buffet, or sucked dry what Potter elsewhere calls the post-WW2 “oasis” of low-hanging fruit, we are now coming up against the hard limits of growth. Douthat likens what’s happening to the frontier thesis of the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner, which saw the American West as giving rise to a spirit of democracy and egalitarianism in that country. In turn, the frontier’s closing (dated 1890) could be taken as marking a high tide in these values. Douthat thinks this “can be usefully applied to the entire modern project” because “bedrock assumptions” like perpetual progress can now be seen as having been based upon our expansion into new worlds that no longer exist. There’s no more free land, or free lunch.

Another analogy I had brought to mind was that put forward by Pierre Berton in his book 1967: Canada’s Turning Point. Why, Berton wondered, looking back thirty years later, were we so nostalgic for the Centennial?

By a number of measurements we are a great deal better off today than we were thirty years ago. We are healthier and we are wealthier than we were in 1967. The real net worth of the average Canadian is almost double what it was back then. Babies born today can expect to live longer – six years more than the centennial crop of babies. The death rate for infants has dropped from twenty-two per thousand to six. Far fewer mothers die in childbirth. And, as far as minority groups are concerned, we live in a much more tolerant society and one that is far less repressed.

Why, then, do we look back to 1967 as a golden year compared to 1997? If we are better off today, why all the hand wringing?

In answering that question Berton suggests various reasons, like the fear of the country splitting apart, but more broadly he draws a connection to an aging population. What happened from 1967 to 1997? The Boomers got old, and with their youth went their optimism and dreams for a golden future.

We were all high in 1967, like somebody who has just won the lottery. Expo taught us to go first class, and we reveled in the pride that inspired. In those days we felt secure as Canadians, confident enough to push for a better, freer life. We did not count the cost until the bills began to come in. The years that followed had some of the effects of a hangover after a binge.

The buffet, the oasis, winning the lottery, the drunken binge – they all work as metaphors. The point being that now the party’s over. The optimism, confidence, and sense of security enjoyed in the golden age is gone.

This is bad news because, as Ross Douthat argues, progress is a necessary fiction for modern societies. Indeed, he even goes further and equates the notion of progress with civilization itself. What happens when we stop believing in our very purpose?

The biggest effect this loss of faith has had so far is on our politics. A society that sees itself, correctly or not, as being stuck in a state of (terminal) decline will be first and foremost one that is, paradoxically, resistant to changing course. All change will be seen as change for the worse, or as losing everything in what is a zero-sum game (hence the current vogue for seeing every crisis as “existential”). A voter’s prime directive becomes holding on to one’s privileged lifestyle. The beneficiaries of the banquet/oasis/post-War party were the Boomers and, being old, they are the ones who now have the most to lose. What Douthat means by a decadent society is one that can be characterized more accurately as a society of retirees, with stagnation being synonymous with sclerosis and sterility (both being words that he uses). The whole world, to paraphrase Eliot, is our nursing home. Or, per Douthat:

we are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, spurning both memory and ambition while we await some saving innovation or revelation, burrowing into cocoons from which no chrysalis is likely to emerge, growing old unhappily together in the glowing light of tiny screens.

Those screens, in turn, are our invitation into more comforting virtual realities, the environment of Andersen’s fantasyland. True belief being no longer necessary for survival, we are cut free to believe anything we want in what Steven Pinker calls the tragedy of the belief commons. Here is Potter on the political endgame brought about by the closing of the Western mind as well as the political frontier:

It’s the simple fact of economic expansion that inclines people towards feelings of openness and toleration and that inspires trust in our democratic institutions. Just as the knowledge the pie will keep getting bigger makes people more generous in the divvying up of that pie, the sense that we can expect things to get even better – no matter where we currently are on the development curve – acts as a sort of bellows of fellow-feeling, making people more hopeful for the future and more generous-minded. More than anything else, the mere fact of growth is a signal that the future will be better than the past.

Unsurprisingly, the opposite holds during periods of stagnation, when zero-sum thinking kicks in. When the economy stops growing or even starts to shrink, people become fearful for the future, suspicious of immigrants and diversity in general, and distrustful of democracy. Stagnation breeds authoritarianism – that, of course, is one of the great lessons of the 1930s, as the Great Depression drove diverse, democratic populations toward nationalism and into the arms of fascist dictators. While there are no iron-clad laws of history, economic stagnation and the decline of liberal democracy are strongly linked.

Not a happy ending, but these are books about the end of the world as we knew it. Is that decline, or decadence, or something new that we can’t identify yet? I think the answer lies in our past, which gives me little hope for the future.

Review first published online March 21, 2022.

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